As a filmmaker, imagination may quite possibly be one of the most important things during the creation process.
In your mind, your imagination plays the fiddle. An epic story of heroics and villainy. The light of God cast on your characters. Music so sweet the Sirens themselves sang it. Visuals so stunning that Rembrandt would be impressed.
But the root of our imagination begins in our childhood. Recently on ‘The Fortress of Dorkness’, we discussed the comic series, Saga. Creator Brian K. Vaughn crafted Saga over a number of years, a result of his imagination when he was a child.
Today I’m going to speak of something that inspired my own imagination, Mattel & Filmation’s Masters of the Universe.
The Eternian adventures of the scantily clad barbaric hero, He-Man, and the villainous bone-headed wizard Skeletor, was perhaps the most important cartoon produced in the United States in the 1980’s.
On the surface, MOTU, as it’s often abbreviated, was your typical cartoon about good vs. evil. GI Joe was doing it. The Thundercats were doing it. My personal favorite, Transformers was doing it.
But when we dig a little deeper we see that Masters had something…more. Another layer down we have a story where barbarians, wizards, robots, cowboys, vampires, and a ton of other beings lived in the same universe, letting my imagination soak it all in.
A little further, and we start seeing the deep roots of the stories. Masters wasn’t just another cartoon where toys were being forced down our throats. It was threaded with a rich, fantastical tale of heroism, loss, pity, consequences, and, yes, even lust.
Look at the infamous episode ‘The Problem with Power’. Skeletor tricks The Most Powerful Man in the Universe into thinking he accidentally killed a man, causing He-Man to relinquish the power bestowed upon him. He beats himself over his own negligence, and regardless of the outcome or the circumstances, a strong lesson is learnt about the consequences of wielding such power.
Or perhaps we can look at ‘The Search’, where He-Man is overcome by the cosmic power of The Starseed, and must rise above his own temptations of destroying Skeletor. And who can forget ‘Prince Adam No More’, where Adam puts his own desire to be approved by his father above his duties.
Stories like these sparked the thought process for me, where heroes could be damned by their own actions. I learnt that you could still make a fun story about fantasy and science fiction, and retain a solid, character driven tale, with strong moral implications.
Credit has to be given to Filmation. Lou Scheimer and his team pushed the boundaries of a cartoon in a way that I, as a fan of animation, had not seen in any other cartoon of that period. Yes, other cartoons ended their episodes with a short moral snippet, but the consistency of Masters was unmatched in the western market.
To give you an idea of the impact of this cartoon, look at some of the names involved: Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Bob Forward, Haim Saban, David Wise, J. Michael Straczynski, and Larry DiTillio. These guys went on to spearhead some of the most memorable cartoons, television series, and films ever, even winning numerous awards along the way.
He-Man and The Masters of the Universe is by far one of the important pieces of media to ever be produced. Though it’s faced moderate success with its many attempts to come back, the series, comics, and the films it spawned following it may be good, but lack the soul that made the original so special.
With another film in the works, I hope that they remember the heart of what made the Filmation series so unique, and not make it another mindless action film to appeal to a ‘grittier’ audience (I myself would love to see one done with this flavor in the styling of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal).
The potential now exists to bring that same heart & soul out for the imaginations of the modern age, and hopefully, we’ll all be a little more inspired.
Last weekend, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography at the 87th Academy Awards.
Birdman, which was a weird and gratifying film, falls into a genre that is close to my own heart, and what defines a number of my stories. I’m speaking, of course, of Magical Realism. With Birdman’s big win I felt that this might be a good time for me to speak briefly on the genre.
Magical Realism is taking fantastical elements and portraying them as commonplace in the ‘regular’ world. This is not the same as a story where a character enters a separate, fantasy universe, such as the Chronicles of Narnia or Peter Pan.
In those cases, the character is leaving the rational world and leaps into a strange land filled with mystery, or rather the unknown. Magical Realism, on the other hand, takes the same wondrous components and makes them out to be everyday occurrences in the real world. The metaphysical becomes physical.
Imagine Aslan the Lion around every Wednesday for coffee.
Perhaps you’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, Big Fish, or Amélie? These flicks are examples of the genre, the latter two being in my top films. Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Hayao Miyazaki are two famous names you might recognize whose films contain, surprise, surprise, Magical Realism.
Birdman presented Magical Realism as an imaginative element brought out into the real world. The film, though it followed a number of themes and players (for the most part), is a visual account of the outlandish mind of Riggan Thomson, represented by this Birdman character. These sequences were a daydream extended into real life.
I like to tell stories about the mundane world with an added sprinkle of the spice of the fantastical, thus my devotion to the genre. Storytelling can be an extension of our own experiences; the worlds that I build are the same that you and I live in, with the same history, the same events, but off-kilter.
This genre allows me to portray my message, whatever it may be, in a way that opens it to a broader gallery of people. Perhaps what I love most about this genre is one of the ingredients that makeup the core of it: acceptance.
It represents accepting the bizarre and otherworldly into mundane lives, and in doing so, juxtaposes humanity and individualism as a whole. That supernatural beast we see is nothing more than a reflection, a divine mirror image, of ourselves. We escape our lives. We let loose.
Remember, we are all different and the same. We are all bizarre and human.
And that’s where the magic of storytelling comes from.
I recently saw Big Hero 6, Disney’s 54th animation in their coveted Animated Classics range of films, based on an obscure Marvel Comics property from the 90’s.
I was very excited for this film, which the creators made clear is not a Marvel comic book movie, going so far as to not have the Marvel logo play before the film, it delivered on many levels, and for a film not released under its high profile creator’s banner, it still had a fun cameo by Marvel legend, Stan Lee.
Even before I walked into the theater, I was considering this film a milestone.
Because of exactly what I mentioned above; Big Hero 6 is a Marvel property, taken from its mother franchise, and given new life to be immortalized as a Disney classic.
This is a major win for the comic book world.
Disney is known for adapting fairy tales, folk tales, and classic novella as part of the sacred Animated Classics films, but as with 2012’s Wreck It-Ralph, Disney has, post-millennium, been experimenting, and in recent years they’ve made strides in the right direction.
Big Hero 6 is the accumulation of The Great Comic Book Boom we are experiencing in our theaters and on our televisions. Disney was quick, since their acquisition of Marvel, to put this film together as a Disney property.
It’s impact and importance is that the 14 years of streamlined comic book productions since X-Men has finally branched itself out of the stigma of being just comic book movies.
Removing its ties to the comic company that founded it, on the surface at least, as members of Marvel were still involved in the creative process, was a bold move. Yet Disney managed to handle it with respect and create something unique for their own branding.
Those of us who always loved and indulged in comics as a reading medium now get to experience watching the general audience entertain the seriousness of our passions, whether labeled officially as a comic film, or inspired by a comic.
Our comic book world is expanding in a big way.
Let me start off by clearing the air and saying I love the Ninja Turtles.
I’m obsessed with them. Even sitting here writing this, I’ve got my Playmates 2012 Nickelodeon Raphael seated next to me (thus far, my favorite Raphael figure), and, of course, the brothers aren’t too far off either.
The heroes in a half shell were a staple in my household when I was growing up, to the point where my 50-year-old mother knows more about the franchise than I can remember (she recalls a tale where I cried my eyes out, accusing Bebop and Rocksteady of kidnapping her when I was three).
Toys, role-playing items, VHS tapes, bed sheets, the works; the TMNT were as important in my upbringing as learning to read and write.
Recently, having had this discussion with a friend, I asked the question: Out of every franchise that spawned itself in the 80’s, why has TMNT remained so stable?
Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, GI Joe, Silverhawks, M.A.S.K., Tigersharks, just to name a few, are all franchises that were part of my upbringing, and part of many of my generations'. Through the years, some of the aforementioned franchises have all had attempted revivals and/or reboots, while some have had none at all.
Even my beloved Transformers, without a doubt my favorite animated franchise, or series for that matter, had its ups and downs, and currently, thanks to a set of films and stellar comic series, the franchise has stabilized once again.
And in contrast to all of the above, the TMNT have had a stable run of three animated series in the US, five feature films, a fantastic on-going toy property by Playmates, and several comic book franchises, all of which were met with great success. The only low point I can think of in the franchise is the live-action ‘Next Mutation’.
The title alone shouldn’t have let the series survive. ‘Teenage’. ‘Mutant’. ‘Ninja’. ‘Turtles’.
Look at ‘Masters of the Universe’. That’s one hell of a strong title. ‘Thundercats’. ‘Silverhawks’. Yet, from the get go, the mouthful that is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as absurd as that title is, remains strong.
The premise should be even worse: Four mutated turtles are raised in the New York City sewers by a mutated rat (or human, depending on the series), who names them after his favorite renaissance artists, and trains them as ninjas to fight against a secret organization of evil ninjas.
Yet in the 30 years since its inception, the TMNT endure.
The above premise is usually thrown at you within the first episode or issue of any new series. And that’s all you need to know. This is what you’re getting into. Enjoy.
What brought the franchise into its own was the original animated series. By today’s standards, it was ridiculously goofy, something the crossover film that ended the 2003 series really made a point of putting across.
The originally Mirage comics, which can be harkened to the grittiness of a classic 80’s Frank Miller comic, are good. Really good, and if you haven’t read them, I recommend picking them up.
What made the animated series so special, in a time where other franchises were touting the smart, serious, strong-jawed leader as the hero (here’s looking at you Duke), here was a group of mutated freaks that said it’s okay to be weird. It’s okay to be kooky. It’s okay to be the serious leader. It’s okay to be the brainy one. It’s okay to be a sarcastic hot-head. It’s okay to be a goofball.
The Turtles were just brothers being who they were. No one was given any more importance than the other. They represented the freedom to be whoever you are. They were what all good storytellers know makes a good character.
They were relatable.
I have yet to find a group of people who all agreed on which was their favorite turtle.
My favorite is Raphael. I could relate to his sarcastic and raging nature, particularly in my teens. My friend loves Leonardo because of his role as the team’s backbone; another thinks Donatello’s intelligence makes him the real driving force behind the foursome.
My sister cannot get over how cute she thinks Michelangelo is, to the point where I’ll often find my Michelangelo figures missing because she’s taking selfies with them.
And the scary part of all this is, they are still relatable, the stories have matured, and the core of each character remains the same.
No single franchise has gone out of its way to appeal to every corner of the masses, and to this day continues to make the effort to do so.
Even the toys weren’t afraid to break barriers. Astronaut Turtles, Farmer Turtles, Universal Monster Turtles, Star Trek Turtles, ‘unofficial’ Ghostbuster Turtles, and as of a month or two ago, LARP Turtles.
Yes, LARP Turtles.
The green mean fighting machines were whoever you wanted to be.
This is why Playmates claims it was the best selling boys toy in 2013, and I believe it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the stock of a toy line change so frequently in any store, there are very few shelf warmers in the Nickelodeon toy line, in fact you’ll generally find the toys are sold out.
It’s this one of multiple reasons, this nature of the franchise, in this writer’s opinion, that makes the series such a solid staple of culture.
I grew up on the adventures of Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo. I continue to support them. My children will probably do the same.
Finally, to sum up how important the mass appeal of the franchise is, having spent time in a 3rd world country, these are the rare characters you’ll often hear the under-privileged refer to:
Batman. Superman. Spider-Man.
Usually I want to use the article space here, or as I affectionately baptized it ‘The Science of Film’ section, to consider certain aspects of film.
However, since it’s New Years Day, and my website is still budding, I thought today I would get to explaining my Top Five film picks out of the way.
Now, my Top Five doesn’t mean I consider these the best motion pictures produced by humankind (because alien developed pictures could be superior, right?). For instance, I think #2 on my list is the greatest film ever made; yet it’s not #1.
The reason my list is structured in this way is for the sake of the influence that film has on me. I will admit that there are far better movies than the ones listed here (except #2, see last paragraph/ below), so this is singularly my list of my Top Five Films.
Click on the titles to link to IMDb for more info on the films.
So without further ado:
"I'm simply saying that life, uh... finds a way."
Why is this my favorite film?
It’s the motion picture that started it all. 5-year-old me took the blood oath and pledged my mind, body and soul to the film industry after seeing this movie.
This movie has everything I love, and as I age I’ve found more reasons to cherish it, be they good, bad, or flat out ridiculous.
I can honestly tell you I’ve seen this one well over 100 times, including watching it frame-by-frame in my teens with my sister. Overall, I just love the film and it’s just plain old fun.
"I'm not hurt at all. Didn't you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet."
Oh boy, what can I say about the greatest-movie-ever-made that hasn’t already been said?
This movie has influenced more filmmakers than I can count, including Spielberg. This is David Lean’s magnum opus, and you don’t see movies like this anymore. Experiencing it for the first time in my teens revolutionized everything I knew about storytelling.
I decided for a long time after seeing this film that every movie or script I churn out should live up to this one’s standards, and I recommend indulging in this film for yourself at least once.
A bonus is that I got to see it in 70mm around my birthday one year.
"Is it showing off if somebody's doing the things he's capable of doing? Is a bird showing off when it flies?"
The poster for this one summarizes it all: You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly.
Richard Donner’s Superman made me believe. It is funny, exciting, heartbreaking, beautifully filmed and told. I don’t think any superhero film has achieved the panoramic sensations of this flick’s world. It felt big. It felt real. And as a comic book fan, this movie will always exhibit the case that you don’t need state-of-the-art graphics or over-the-top action sequences to tell an inspiring and heartwarming superhero film.
This is my rainy day movie.
4. Hook (1991)
"He's just been away from Neverland so long, his mind's been junk-tified. He's forgotten everything."
My feel-good movie. It’s a fantasy swashbuckler, and a story of fathers and sons, a classic Spielberg motif, that just elates the audience.
Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins really bring this film together, and it’s one of the few movies that still makes me cry, in a good way. I can always rely on this film to cheer me up, watching it makes me want to stride to live more adventurous, and it’s filled with a ton of Easter Eggs that I’ll let you spot yourself.
Plus, Hook’s suicide attempt has to be the best moment in a film ever. Even my mother quotes this scene.
"The quest for the grail is not archeology, it's a race against evil."
Indy is the hero I believe every young entrepreneur wants to be, and I think this adventure is not only personal for Spielberg and Indy, but for the audience as well. It’s a father/ son exploit about unearthing what you’re truly pursing.
This film has that intimate touch that you see in Steven’s finest. It’s the core of the story, the reflective, or rather metaphoric use of religious themes to characterize the journey of our heroes that makes this film stellar.
Out of all four Indiana Jones films, this one resonates the most with me. I even started writing in diaries because I wanted my own Grail Journal.
This isn’t necessarily in any order; just two movies I want to mention that didn’t make it to the Top Five.
"You yell barracuda, everybody says, "Huh? What?" You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."
I remember watching this movie with my dad at 4-years-old and swearing never to enter the water again. It was my first exposure to Steven Spielberg, whose films would, a year later, lead me down the path I’m on now. It’s my July 4th flick, so I watch it pretty regularly.
Some years later, when I dwelled deeper into the bosom of filmmaking, this was the movie I spent most of my time breaking down. I have a notebook somewhere from my teens where I actually storyboarded shots from the film that I thought stood out so I could master the theory behind them.
"And nothing. You belong to me... now."
I have watched this movie annually since I was a child and it’s a big part of my life. Transformers is my ‘thing’. It’s my fandom, and this film is probably what I think most people pre-2007 remember about the franchise.
It introduced The Matrix, Unicron, Galvatron, and many other things that are now part of the Transformers Mythology, including the first of the many deaths of Optimus Prime. It’s so influential that nearly every Transformers franchise that followed either quotes from or homages this film, including the Bay-verse movies.
I had this movie memorized word-for-word at one point, and in 2011 I got to see it on the big screen at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica, on my birthday, which might make that my best birthday ever. It has, and will always, hold a special place in my heart as my favorite animated film.
Also, it’s basically Star Wars, but with Grimlock, how can you not love that?
Some time ago I was sitting with a group of colleagues, three of us in film, and the fourth what we would consider the general audience. Our discussion, which was getting heated, was about what makes a good movie, and ended with us discussing in what order we would categorize the important aspects of film; story, sound, cinematography, talent, or design. Unable to reach a mutual conclusion, we decided to shelve the question for a later time.
There was a flaw in our argument, and I hope you noticed. The fact is that film can’t be divided into five specific tiers.
You can make a film without any one of the five elements I listed, of course losing visuals might just be an audio book, the fact of the matter is that there are no limitations on what makes a good movie as long as you can extend your vision in the best way possible.
Silent films, art house films, non-narrative, home movies, these are all forms of film and don’t commandeer to one category or the other. The beauty of cinema is that it is an entity created by human kind, molded to fancies of the creator to be presented to the audience.
A movie does not need to hit every check mark to be good. On the contrary, it can also be terrible even if all the stars align. Once it gets to the audience, isn’t it entirely subjective?
Thus meaning, a film is equal in it’s need for story, for sound, for cinematography, for talent, for design, for special effects, for format, for location, for props, and the list goes on and on. We can’t lock it down into five categories; we need to embrace the diversity of it.
So that makes the Science of Film a term of endearment. It’s a statement to the expanding omniverse of the film world that we treasure its diversity. That we wish to explore this interminable world. That we love film.
The Science of Film is a church of belief in film. The Science of Film is achieving the sublimity of film by your own means. The Science of Film is dreaming out loud.
During that night, I had an epiphany, which I shared with my friends, and I confess to you now; sometimes I, as a filmmaker, have my head stuck up my ass. The only person making sense that night, was our fourth member, who said ‘You like a certain way of doing things, and you like doing them differently. Who cares as long as you both get the point across?’
‘It’s purely subjective.’